Catalyzing Urban Resilience in American Cities
by Anna Clark
Resilience, a new paradigm for urban planning, green building, and community development, was the subject of the 2016 North Texas Sustainable Showcase, an annual conference hosted by USGBC Texas and other sponsors. The event introduced professionals from every facet of the building sector to elements of urban resilience, a term that both includes and transcends sustainability.
“Resilience is the preservation of communities through ongoing planning for the capacity to learn, adapt, and change in the face of present-day and future threats, both predictable and unknown,“ said Z Smith, principal and director of sustainability and building performance for New Orleans-based design studio Eskew+Dumez+Ripple.
From left to right: Keynote Speaker Z Smith, North Texas Regional Council Member Norma Lehman, Keynote Speaker Betsy del Monte.
Smith used the example of the New York City’s subway system to illustrate the importance of planning for resilience. It had been “designed to withstand all sorts of events” but Hurricane Sandy, which it might have otherwise survived, “proved too much,” said Smith.
Juxtaposing the example of an urban system being compromised by an immediate blow, Showcase speakers shared other examples that illustrated the cascading consequences of slow deterioration of infrastructure in the face of rising water, heat, and socio-economic pressures.
“Things can chronically weaken you over time until you just can’t go on anymore,” said El Paso’s Chief Resilience Officer Nicole Ferrini during her presentation on urban resilience.
Ferrini defines “city resilience” as the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions and businesses within a city to survive, adapt and thrive no matter what kind of chronic stresses and acute shocks they may experience.
As a desert city, El Paso faces consequences of increasing heat; the city experienced four heat-related deaths during this summer. On the positive side, El Paso aims to use its unique circumstances to develop a path for other cities.
“El Paso wants to establish the value of a ‘desert ecosystem’,” said Nicole Ferrini.
In Dallas, chronic stress not only involves increasing heat, but also increasing inequality. According to the analysis from the Urban Institute, which examined inequality within commuting zones (defined as portions of several counties that make up metropolitan areas), Dallas posted the largest neighborhood disparity among commuting zones with at least 250,000 residents.
“We have a $52 billion health care industry in North Texas, but we have the highest rate of uninsured people,” said Dallas’ Chief Resilience Officer Theresa O’Donnell. Alongside her efforts to bolster the built environment, O’Donnell is emphasizing inclusive economic development in Dallas’ roadmap to resilience.
The emphasis in inclusion will also enable the City of Dallas to leverage the support of similarly-aligned civic organizations that are tackling this issue, such as the Inclusive DFW Consortium, a multi-stakeholder community under development with the SMU Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity.
While cities in Texas may seem like underdogs compared to sustainability heavyweights such as San Francisco and New York City, as members of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100RC network, Ferrini and O’Donnell have a track to run on in their race to resilience. The City Resilience Framework provides a lens to understand the complexity of cities and the drivers that contribute to their resilience.
“Looking at resilience nationally, we see each threat is different but themes are the same,” said Smith. He acknowledged that in some American cities, resilience is not about achieving recognition so much as survival.
“New Orleans one day may be like Venice, a historic city surrounded by open water,” said Smith. Fortunately, since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the city has made some phenomenal green achievements.
Referencing leading-edge projects such as the BioInnovation Center, Smith explained that his team’s work in New Orleans “draws on ideas from around the country and around the world.” (Download the Resilient New Orleans Strategy here.)
Recalling that jazz was invented in New Orleans by drawing on ideas from other places and combining them in original ways, Smith added, “Everyone working in resilience has to improvise, but that improvisation can produce beautiful results.”
Strengthening communities with social resilience
While cities often approach resilience to address their most pressing needs, those that are proactive can enjoy what Smith calls the “resilience benefit,” which encapsulates the health, wellness, and financial benefits that accompany efforts toward climate change adaptation, disaster preparedness, and economic inclusivity.
Accounting for the social side of the urban resilience movement, the conference concluded with a stakeholder experience led by Betsy del Monte, FAIA, LEED BD+C, and Jim Newman, LEED AP O+M and principal at Linnean Solutions.
“True engagement comes from co-creating efforts with all stakeholders affected,” said Newman. “Our regenerative development approach is to work with communities to create solutions that are aligned with their environmental, social and economic goals and needs as well as the overall resilience framework of the city.”
Attendees participate in roundtable discussions at North Texas Sustainable Showcase.
As those of us experienced in the workshop, Newman’s approach is to insert people and their experiences into the conversation as a key driver for resilient infrastructure planning, Presenting alongside del Monte, Newman explained their belief in the importance of integrating stakeholder input into solutions. Their presentation expressed a happy confluence of regenerative development training, a design competition aimed at dealing with sea-level rise, and a vision for more humane urban development.
“Betsy and my belief is that we must bring actual people deeply into the planning process so that Dallas can not just survive, but thrive with climate change.” Newman added, “Once we accept these goals, then the question is, ‘How can we affect the most people and do the greatest amount of good?’ This is where our approach to using press and engaging communities gains real power. These tools are available to everyone.”
The 2016 Sustainable Showcase speakers exemplify the caliber of ideas, expertise, and tools that are available to USGBC members and attendees at events. For more information on the Chapter’s events throughout Texas, visit the Events Calendar on the website: http://texasgreenbuildingmarketplace.org/event/.
About Anna Clark
Anna Clark is the president of EarthPeople Media, a strategic communication firm serving start-ups, mid-sized enterprises, Fortune 500s and NGOs. An independent journalist on sustainability and social innovation, Anna’s voice has appeared in Huffington Post, GreenBiz.com, Guardian Sustainable Business, Al Jazeera English, The Christian Science Monitor and The Dallas Morning News.